Reading the Bible 2: Introduction to the Torah

We begin our journey with the Old Testament. The exact books that make up the Old Testament vary among Christian denominations with some including only the books found in the canonical Hebrew Bible of Judaism and others also including all or some of the deuterocanonical (second canonical) books which consist of Jewish writings that were included in the Septuagint which is the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was translated in stages between the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BC in Alexandria. The nature of these books was in dispute in the early Church, and they are not considered canonical in Judaism although they were read by the Jews and some passages from them are cited in the New Testament. When I first read the Bible, I read an NIV copy, which, being a modern Protestant translation, did not include the deuterocanonical books. During this study, I will include these books seeing as they are available with the WEB translation and I think it will be interesting to encounter these works regardless of their canonical status.

The first five books of the Old Testament (GenesisExodusLeviticusNumbers, and Deuteronomy) are known as the Pentateuch or the Torah which is Hebrew for “law”, “teaching”, or “instruction”. According to Jewish religious tradition, the Torah was authored by the Hebrew prophet Moses. In addition, the Torah itself and later books of the Bible including the Gospels attest to the Torah as being the work of Moses. When it is said that Moses wrote the Torah, the claim is that Moses was the primary author, but that he likely drew upon existing materials when writing the portions that predate his life and that later editors added some expository material such as the recording of the death of Moses and helpful annotations that provide updated names of peoples and places so that later Jewish readers during the time of the Jewish Kingdom and the Babylonian Exile could understand archaic references.

Critical secular scholars since the 18th century have posited differing explanations for the origins of the Torah with the dominant theory being variations on the Wellhausen documentary hypothesis (sometimes known as JEDP theory for Jahwist source, Elohist source, Deuteronomist source, and Priestly source) which alleges that the Torah was edited together at a late date from originally independent, parallel and complete narratives. While this theory frequently pops up in the writings of skeptics who wish to undermine the notion that the Bible is divinely inspired, it has many flaws including loaded and dubious assumptions several of which have crumbled under the evidence of later archeological discoveries. Modern scholarship has trended towards abandoning the classical documentary hypothesis, but unfortunately, it is still sometimes treated by those with only a fleeting familarity with the Bible and Ancient Near East cultures as though it were established fact beyond controversy.

Given my faith in Jesus as God’s definitive messenger and His role as the center of my interpretative understanding of the Bible, the fact that Jesus claims in the New Testament that Moses is the author of the Torah means that I start with this as my assumption and place the burden of proof on those who would claim that Moses did not author the Torah. From my readings on the documentary hypothesis, I do not think that the burden of proof has been met. Instead, I find that a far more compelling approach is based upon the Wiseman hypothesis which notes the distinctive toledoth (‘These are the generations of …’) passages in Genesis and sees them as colophons that mark the ends of tablets.

For an excellent introductory analysis of the Wiseman hypothesis and how it lays bare the structure of Genesis, I recommend reading Who Wrote Genesis? Are the Toledoths Colophons?. For further reading on the authorship of the Torah, I suggest: Did Moses Write the Pentateuch?JEDP Theory Articles and The Documentary Theory of the Authorship of the Pentateuch.

Now that the matter of authorship has been touched upon, we are in a position to turn our attention directly to the first book of the Torah: the book of Genesis. The title, which comes from the Septuagint, is Greek for “birth” or “origin” and stems from the both the general subject matter of the work and from the frequent usage of the Greek geneseos in the text which corresponds with the Hebrew toledoth for “account” or “family origins” in the original Hebrew manuscripts. The original Hebrew title B’reishit means “in the beginning” and is the first word of the Hebrew text – a method by which all five books of the Torah are named in the Hebrew versions.

Genesis begins with an account of God creating the world and mankind. It then gives an account of early human history leading up to the pivotal figure of Abraham whose special relationship with God leads him to become the father of the Jewish and Arab peoples. Finally, Genesis follows the story of Abraham’s descendants until we find the fledging 12 tribes of Israel moving from their ancestral lands in Canaan (ancient Palestine) to live among the Egyptian people.

That’s plenty to digest for today. Tomorrow we’ll dive into the opening story of Genesis.

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